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Friday, October 17, 2008

Why Train With Cables / Chest Expanders

The recent (commercial) revival of interest in the training techniques of old-time strongmen has brought some unjustly neglected training methods to the surface. Of course, these techniques have been used throughout the decades by strength athletes like powerlifters, weightlifters and Strongman competitors, but had fallen out of favor with elite athletes, physique competitors (principally bodybuilders) and the average Joe/Jane trying to get stronger and look better.

The resurrection of these methods in the strength and conditioning community was started some years ago by the esteemed Brooks D. Kubik, author of Dinosaur Training, probably the best strength book ever written (my humble opinion). Several other experts rode the "functional training" wave to success: the Evil Russian, Pavel Tsatsouline; the snake oil salesman, Matt Furey; Bud Jeffries, probably the most underrated strongman in the history of the game. Fringe authors like John Brookfield, Dennis Rogers and John Wood, came out of relative obscurity and shared their immense knowlede and expertise on being strong as hell. These success stories inspired hundreds of other fitness "experts" to follow suit, which they did more or less successfully. Either way, old-time training seems to be back to stay. It seems as if the strength training world is forced to revert to training philosophies from almost one hundredyears ago, which gives one a good notion of the actual progress (or rather lackthereof) made in this field.

One of the tools of the trade extensively used by old-time strongmen were/are cable sets, or chest expanders. Cable training/strandpulling can be defined as the activity of stretching out elastic strands/bands, usually rubber tubing or steel springs, to a certain length in certain positions. Now, for most of you the mention of a "chest expander" device will a) register no "hits", b) bring back a foggy memory of two handles connected with steel springs that your Dad/Grandpa used to have around the house and didn't necessarily use, or c) bring back painful memories of said springs pinching chest hair and skin, if you belong to the "Baby Boomer" generation and actually used to use one. Indeed, the original concept of cable and spring sets was severely perverted over the years, as companies tried to market it as a training tool for women and guys "into toning", which resulted in expanders that, to paraphrase the words of John Brookfield, "your aunt Betsy could pull for 10 good reps the first time she tried it". One can understand that this kind of gimmick sort of killed strandpulling in the eyes of serious, hard-core strength athletes.

However, I like to draw the parallel between cable gimmicks and pink 2-lb. dumbbells used for "power aerobic" classes. Just because some companies market a ridiculous dumbbell, no one attempts to claim that weight-lifting is useless and non-productive; yet, cables get a bad rap. A set of moderately strong cables will give any man a great workout, and strong ones will humble even the mightiest weight-lifter if he's unaccustomed to working with them. To put it smply, serious cable training will develop strength and size. Some of the strongest men in history have used cables - if it worked for them, it will work for you. It will enhance an existing weight-lifting program, or put the finishing “touches” on a physique forged through diligent use of iron, or as a strength and flexibility program unto itself, or combined with non-apparatus and bodyweight exercises.

Although many people credit the Father of Bodybuilding, Eugen Sandow, with the invention of strands, they have been around ever since Europe discovered rubber. Also, Sandow didn't really train with them that much - he just marketed them very well, and later seemed to claim that his magnificent physique was initially built with a chest expander. Thomas Inch and Fred Rollon were professional strongmen who relied heavily (in the latter case, exclusively) on cable training. The best old-time cable training courses were written by Alfred Danks, Joe Bonomo and Roy Noe, all available for free viewing on, as well as Earle Liederman, whose course I've been unable to find. Modern courses include John Brookfield's book Training With Cables for Strength and a section in Mike Brown's work Strength of Samson and How to Attain It.

If you're not convinced yet, here's a list of reasons for cable training:

- Cables provide a different type of resistance to weights and “hit” the muscles in a different way, plus they develop muscles that are difficult to “get to” with regular barbell/dumbbell exercises;

- Cable exercises are very effective at “pumping” individual muscles, which is beneficial as it provides the necessary flushing of the muscle with blood (and removal of metabolic waste);

- Cables are light and take up very little space, so they’re very portable, great for trainees who are frequently on the road for longer periods and want to get some training done (like myself);

- Cables are extremely versatile – they can be used to replicate virtually all weight-lifting exercises, plus a vast number of others that have no weighted equivalent. They also provide unlimited options regarding muscles worked, range of motion, etc.;

- Cables do not stress the joints and tendons the way heavy weights do (although they do provide excellent joint/tendon loading), and hence lend themselves better to speed or explosive work at lower risk of injury (e.g. cable ballistic squats vs. barbell ballistic squats);

- Cables allow you to train with limit or near-limit resistance without the risk of life-threatening injury: getting whacked by a poorly secured cable or handle is very, very painful, but highly unlikely to permanently cripple you;

- Cables enable you to exercise against resistance coming from all angles, unlike weights, where the resistance is provided by gravity (always downward);

- Cables allow you to increase/decrease resistance easily and safely during the exercise, simply by adjusting the length pulled (by adjusting the grip or, if a door attachment is used, by stepping further/closer to the door);

- Cables are very useful for grapplers, as the multi-directional resistance provided is similar to
that provided by an opponent;

- Many traditional cable movements develop flexibility along with strength, an important aspect of physical development often neglected by weightlifters (indeed, excessive flexibility can be detrimental to certain categories of strength athletes, so this is something that is seldom, if ever, trained);

- Cables can be used for isolation exercises that target only the muscle worked, or for compound, full-body exercises that require all the muscles to work in unison; they cover the entire spectrum.

Good cable sets can be bought from Lifeline, Ironmind and Mike Brown. Ironmind offers a high-quality steel spring set, while the other two companies have opted for rubber. Cable sets are not very expensive, so there are no excuses: grab one and start pumping some rubber!

Training Myths - My Take

I posted this not-so-short text on one of the forums that I frequent. It was inspired by a "discussion" that I had with some brain-washed fucktard on another forum that I frequent, as well as the general attitude among the posters on that forum. Yes, it is not a secret: is one of my favorite forums, also one of the most frustrating. I have read excellent training advice there, but it seems that the people who actually train hard, lift heavy and know their shit are being drowned out by the morons who want people to kiss their ass because they bought a kettlebell, or to spout abuse at the "mullets" at the gym. It seems that having or wanting a finely moulded physique presents a sort of offense to these people. I also have a big problem with the down-right crappy layout of the forum, where threads just pile one atop the other. Whatever. I still go there on the random chance that one good post by Jack Reape or Dave Whitley or someone else won't get buried under a couple dozen threads about the "WTH effect".

I shall now delve into an analysis of cow excrement conceptions that abound on the internet. I’ve probably said before, but you should be subjected to at least one test of basic intelligence before they let you log onto the Web. Contrary to my previous beliefs, I have come to the conclusion that freedom of information is dangerous and that the formula:

Abundance of Information + Lack of Processing Capacities = Disaster

Is truer than ever in this era of accessible info.

Back when I was doing graphical design (of sorts), I “obtained” the last version of the Adobe Illustrator software. An excellent programme by anyone’s standards. However, I installed it onto my old computer which lacked sufficient processing capacities, so I would often lose hours of work due to crashes. It is the same way with morons reading stuff on the Web. I found a way out – bought a better computer. Most people don’t have the option of re-wiring their brain for proper function.

Statement no. 1:“The (insert exercise name 1) is not a functional movement. It should be replaced with (insert exercise name 2).”

I posted here a while back discussing the difference between “compound” and “functional”. I won’t delve into that again. A push-up is not more functional than a bench press, unless the press is performed with a very low weight. In this case you can benefit more from doing the push-up and you’re wasting your time on the bench. There is some carryover, but it’s not the same exercise. In much the same manner as there is carryover between the bench press and the military press, but using one to train for the other just doesn’t make sense. I will repeat myself and state that unless you can do 15-20 proper pushups (PROPER!!! i.e. none of the floor-humping crap) you have not earned the right to do bench presses.As for the definition of “functional”, a bench press will be immensely more “functional” to the powerlifter. The push-up will also serve some function, like improving shoulder stability and stuff. To a rock climber, a pullup will be more functional than the deadlift, especially a pullup on rafters or thick beams, or on two or three fingers, as it mimics the climbing pattern better. Now the deadlift is the King of Functional Exercises, judging from the genuflection it receives on the “functional fitness” sites, but in this instance it’s not “functional”.For the record, I prefer the use of the terms “general and specific physical preparedness”. Not that anyone cares.

Statement no. 2:“The bench press sucks!!! Military press is the way to go. It’s so much more functional.”

Okay, here are two general observations after studying a sizeable population of the anti-benching brigade:

a) They universally SUCK at the bench press;

b) They almost universally suck at the military/overhead press too. However, here the disadvantage is lower, as very few people ever do the standing overhead press. A bench press of 200 lbs. is hardly impressive in any setting. An overhead press of 132 lbs (yes, that’s two hands) will seem Herculean to people who have never tried it, or do it as an afterthought of heavy benching;

c) They say “How does lying on your back and pressing a weight correlate to real-life situations?” Well, how often do you press people overhead in real-life situations? Or am I just really sheltered?This is a continuation of the old “if I can’t do it, it can’t be good” mentality. The overhead press is a tremendous strength builder, but give each exercise its due.

Statement no. 3:“Weighted chinups build bigger biceps than barbell/dumbbell curls”

This can be disputed, but IMHO the answer is NO. Were this true, all the Pro Bodybuilders would switch to chinups. The actual answer is a happy medium – for max size, you need both compound and isolation exercises.“But my arms grew 2 inches since I substituted chinups for curls!”Yes. This happened because you used 5 lb. dumbbells for curls, then started training chinups with something called INTENSITY. Plus it’s not really hard to go from a 12” arm to a 14” arm.The winner of the Most Cretinous Response for the month of March was a guy on, a useful forum that I occassionally visit. After I’d made a comment kinda along the lines of what I wrote above, he posted something along the lines of “no, ‘cause that’s not functional, ‘cause you wouldn’t climb a mountain using your biceps”. I sometimes shed a tear for the havoc all the “functional training” info has wreaked on the poor moronic minds of these unfortunates.

Statement no. 4:“Bodybuilding is ridiculous! I hate those mullets!”

Almost everyone who states this is a reformed “muscle pumper” who lost years and years of training in futile efforts to follow the routines of the Champs. Frustrated and experiencing diarrhea from all the overpriced supplements they spent their cash on, they turned against their former brethren and now despise them with a passion. Come on. They’re the same as you. So maybe now you stumbled on the Secret that’ll take your top deadlift from 200 to 220 (whoopee). About 3% of you will actually attain decent muscular development. Don’t you have some compassion for someone who’s doing the same mistake you used to? Were you not once worthy of the term “mullet” yourself?The truth is, most of you are still closet bodybuilders. You’re still after the elusive 18” arm and writhing, massive pectorals. Don’t lie, I know. That’s why you keep changing even the “functional” routines you’re on. That’s why you post your “functional” workouts, but omit the few concentration curls you sneak in somewhere towards the end. You can say no, kick and scream, but there’s no lying to yourself.

Statement no. 5: – from the opposite end of the spectrum:“Bodyweight guys have hardly any muscle. Weights are better for building muscle.”

or another variant:

“Bodyweight exercises create small, hard muscles, while weights produce bigger muscles with less shape”

Although I see the fallacy of this statement, it’s hard to argue against it with someone who’s a firm believer in it. Many of the guys pushing BW stuff don’t look like someone who exercises regularly (or, in fact, at all). Furey is fat and appears to lack muscle mass. Pavel is pretty thin, with wiry muscles. So are most of the RKC dudes, although they’re not BW-only, but the misinformed group kettlebells and BW exercises in the same category. Why this occurs is unknown to me, I can venture a guess that they think of these exercises as “non-barbell”. The mind of the idiot is superbly complex in some areas.I’m already boring everyone by repeating myself, so here I go again: resistance is resistance. Load is defined as a percentage of the maximum resistance opposed (lifted) for a number of reps, like 60% of 3RM. Whether you use weights, BW, cars, dogs, cables, or something else is pretty irrelevant. Now many BW-only guys think that pushups, pullups and situps are al they have to do for high reps to be muscular and ripped. Think again. The progressive system must be employed, i.e. once you can do many reps with a certain resistance, make it harder. This is common sense. Pumping out 300 pushups or situps a day won’t make you bigger, just like doing bench presses with 50 lbs. won’t get you very far.Most of the guys asking this question are frustrated ex-weight-trainers who failed to use the progressive principle and made no progress whatsoever. If you didn’t build any muscle using weights, don’t you think the progression method you’re (not) using is to blame, instead of the means of exercise?

Another point: mostly-BW athletes come from combat sports or professions like law enforcement, military, etc. Combat athletes consciously avoid muscle gain (usually), as it would place them into a higher weight category, hence at a disadvantage. “Tactical” professions require muscular endurance rather than strength, plus the nature of the job (lack of sleep, irregular eating patterns, high stress) sabotages their recovery and muscle-building abilities. Think about it, there is a reason for everything.

I’m sure I’ll think of more bullshit claims. But I leave those for another day.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

My Thoughts on Functional Exercise

Over the years I've read more than my fair share of discussions that have prompted me to re-evaluate my ideas on "functional strength". This is a topic that gets discussed frequently in the strength training communities, and almost inevitably ends up in a pissing contest with all sides throwing out ridiculous arguments at each other. I will try to offer my definition of "functional strength" and "strength" in general; if you disagree, please observe the post description (the letters under the blog title).
I would like to state three things at the very start:
1) There are many, many exercises that target muscles in isolation for the purpose of bringing them up to the overall development level of the body, either in terms of strength or in terms of size. A good example would be the dumbbell concentration curl for the biceps. There is nothing wrong with the practicing of these exercises, and I encourage trainees to use them. Sure, some of them develop aesthetic aspects of the muscles worked with little increase in strength. Also, some people are more concerned with appearance than with strength. Some are not really concerned with strength at all, although it is impossible to develop a muscle without increasing its strength to at least some degree. Different people have different choices. I don't focus on the aesthetic part of exercising, although I try to maintain the size and shape that I have, but I have full support for people who do. their goal is just as valid as mine. To say that these exercises have no place in someone's training is an ignorant and narrow-minded standpoint to say the least. Unless you're a strength/conditioning/fitness trainer with some influence in the "game", you shouldn't really be bashing the way other people train. The best you can do is offer some advice based on personal experience.
2) There is no such thing as "dysfunctional exercise" (which, I guess, would be the opposite of "functional"). The function of a tricep kickback is the delopment of certain aspects of the tricep muscle. The tricep kickback, when performed properly and with appropriate muscle tension, can bring about this change in the tricep. Therefore, it is "functional", as it satisfies that particular function. The function of the barbell back squat is to develop strength in the legs and to some degree core and posterior chain, add mass to the lower body and, indirectly, upper body, even effect a testosterone release. For the listed tasks, the barbell back squat is "functional", whereas the tricep kickback is pretty useless. Using the barbell back squat for tricep development, on the other hand, is a waste of time. I'm sure you understand what I'm trying to say. You could argue that the tricep kickback has limited carryover to athletic performance (a vague term if there ever was any - who could be stupid, ignorant and superfluous enough to group ALL sports and activities in existence under the umbrella term "athletic performance" in this context?), but that has NOTHING to do with "functionality". After all, bodybuilding is an athletic endeavour too, right?
3) I believe in all kinds of strength, from max effort to endurance. One thing that particularly annoys me is the concept of "relative strength". You know, the old "if I weigh 100 lbs and lift 150 lbs I'm much stronger than the 200-lb guy lifting 270". Or even my favorite: "if I weight 100 lbs and can do 10 pushups, I'm just as strong as the 200-lb guy who can also do 10". I never really grasped the concept of "less is more" in this sense. Basic physiology will reveal that just because a man weighs 200 lbs., he doesn't have DOUBLE the factors that effect strength output. This idea ignores minor differences, like height, bone size, etc. Yes, my ego would soar at the idea of the 350 lbs. guy who squats 500 lbs. being weaker than myself, but it just isn't true.Okay, so what forms can this "functional strength" take? Strength can be expressed in the following forms:
Maximum dynamic effort - "grind" lifts: this is the basic idea behind the bench, squat, deadlift, bent-over row, curl, etc., etc. Sure, you need explosiveness to blast through the sticking points and the best powerlifters in the world work on this aspect extensively, but the bar moves slowly thoughout the movement, sometimes stalling. This type of strength is developed by training with heavy poundages for low-rep sets, sometimes even singles. For the big compound lifts, accessory work is usually done for assistant muscle groups (also with low-rep sets, moderately heavy to heavy weight). Speed work, necessary for overcoming the insufferable "sticking points" (i.e. weak portions of the lift), focuses also on low-rep sets performed as fast as possible. It is estimated that the heaviest weight a movement can be performed explosively with is around 60% of the "grind" one-rep max, although I'm sure this varies immensely across the board.Not all "grind" lifts are done with weights, though. This category would certainly include non-plyometric bodyweight exercises - one-armed pullups and pushups, one-leg squats and pistols, handstand pushups, as well as gymnastic exercises on the rings. It's not what you're exercising with, it's the type of effort that makes the difference - al these exercises require a lot of muscle working together in order to "muscle out" that max-effort rep.
Maximum dynamic effort - explosive lifts: these would be the Olympic lifting staples, like the clean and jerk and snatch, also to include variations: power clean, power snatch, various high pulls, etc. The idea is to move as much weight as possible using a "quick" lift, a superbly coordinated effort of several muscle groups that hoists the bar to a sufficient height for the athlete to be able to get under it and complete the lift. The clean and jerk consists of two separate rapid motions - the "clean" part, where the bar is brought to the "rack" position at shoulder height, and the "jerk" part, where the athlete dips beneath the bar and explodes it to an overhead lockout position. The snatch is probably one of the most marvellous displays of athleticism around, where the bar is brought from the ground overhead in a single explosion of strength and power. The same movements can be performed with dumbbells or kettlebells. These quick lifts can be combined with "grinds", resulting in the clean and strict press, probably the single most productive exercise around for overall strength and even size. The quick lifts are best trained with low-rep, multiple sets, as they are pretty demanding CNS-wise.
Bodyweight plyometrics would also be included here, although not those of the repetitive kind. Maximum depth jumps would qualify, as would the vault event in gymnastics.
Maximum static strength - overcoming isometrics: in this type of exercise, the athlete is attempting to lift or otherwise overcome a supramaximal resistance in a given position. Since the resistance is supramaximal, i.e. more than the maximal resistance he/she can overcome in that position, no movement occurs (but a whole load of muscular effort). The main disadvantage with this type of exercising is the relative nature of the effort. If you're doing maximal-effort pushing agaist a wall, how can you determine if you're pushing harder than in the previous session? This issue can be alleviated by using loaded barbells/dumbbells, but then progress can only be measured in exercises that resemble barbell/dumbbell exercises, while the greatest value of isometrics is that you can work muscles and joints from ALL angles. To resolve this issue, Pete Sisco and John Little, the authors of Power Factor Training, devised a machine that measures strength output in isometric overcoming holds. I have not used this device, so I cannot vouch for its effectiveness. The good old Bullworker is also convenient. Training protocols with isometrics usually quote the 3-6 second duration range as most effective for max efforts.
Maximum static strength - yielding isometrics: here the objective is to work against active resistance. Again, no movement occurs, but instead of you working against an immovable resistance, the resistance tries to move against your effort to stop this motion. Obviously, you have to have an active resistance to work against. The most commonly used solution are free weights - place a barbell loaded to a supramaximal weight in a power rack, get under it, lie on a bench, take it off the pins and hold for time. Make sure you have a very reliable power rack. The obvious disadvantage of this method is the fact that for max strength work you need equipment - weights, and a lot more than you usually use, as well as a strong power rack or some other support system.
Partial lifts - a combination of static and dynamic strength: supramaximal repetitions within a limited range of motion (shorter than that used for the "real" exercise) is a method that combines both static and dynamic training. This would include quarter-squats, push presses off the rack, overhead press lockouts bench press lockouts, below and above-the-knee deadlifts, etc. These are usually done in the strongest range of motion, as their purpose is to "skip" the weaker range (including the sticking point) and overload the muscle in a position where it is capable of more work. They also get the CNS accustomed to the "feel" of a much heavier weight.
Dynamic strength-endurance - repetition method: this includes high-repetition sets of barbell, dumbbell and/or bodyweight exercises with the primary purpose of developing work capacity in the areas being worked, but also for increasing the capacity of the cardiovascular system to perform work at a certain intensity. This kind of stamina is vital to competitors in all sports where repetitive moderate intensity effort is required for prolonged periods of time, such as rowing, grappling, boxing, etc. It is also great for fat loss "without the dishonor of running", to paraphrase a popular maxim. Strength-endurance is definitely a form of strength - even the powerlifter, the paradigm of one-rep "grind" effort, needs this type of strength, as a powerlifting meet can last an entire day and entail nine max-effort movements (or better) plus a ton of warmup and maintenance work. The exercises are usually performed explosively, with low to moderate weights.
Static strength-endurance - yielding and overcoming efforts for time: although some would argue that this type of training can even be counter-productive, many sports and athletic activities rely heavily on "isometric endurance". Think of the grip of a judoka on his opponent's lapel, or the stance of the karate practitioner. Definitely a must.
Carries for time or distance - combining static and dynamic strength-endurance: Dan John, the celebrated strength and athletics coach and former discus great, said that there are three ways of developing strength: lifting something overhead, lifting something off the ground, and carrying something for distance and/or time. And if he said it, you better believe he's right. Farmer and yoke carries are part of strongman competition now, and justly so. They have been building tremendous amounts of strength for centuries now.
Non-gravitational resistance - elastic resistance: ah, my pet cables. I love cable exercises not only for their convenience, but for the way they develop strength from any possible angle. Gravity is an excellent provider of resistance (and it's free and always available), but the cable creates its own direction of resistance depending upon the direction it's placed in. Cables also provide a way to work around the problem of diminishing muscular effort as the movement progresses, which is present with barbells: the further you stretch them, the more resistance you encounter, so you're effectively overloading the stronger part of the movement while remaining able to overcome the lower resistance at your sticking point.
Non-gravitational resistance - resistance of materials: this would include bending of iron and steel bars, nails, rebar and the like, ripping of telephone books and cards in halves and quarters, etc. In other words, it is not the weight of the object that provides the resistance - it is the properties of the material from which the object is made. One could argue that cable training falls into the same category, but I think they should be viewed separately. The resistance offered by an iron bar does not increase as it is bent, and you don't require the super-concentrated total-body effort required for bending and ripping to stretch cables (even heavy ones).
Human resistance: this is probably the most underrated form of strength training there is, and also one of the most effective. It is developed by pitting your strength directly against another human, as in wrestling and other grappling sports, and combines most of the expressions of strength described above, plus entails an element of technique too. In my grappling years I encountered a few guys who had immense "human throwing strength". They never lifted weights, or if they did used light poundages, and most of them definitely did not have the advantage of superior technique - their throw attempts were relatively slow and inefficient. Yet when you tried to force them into a disadvantageous position they seemed rooted to the ground. Their grip was vice-like, despite never doing grip-specific work apart from... grappling. I would advise all would-be strong guys and gals to give some form of grappling a go. It develops strength, endurance and a whole new outlook on sports and life in general.
This is by no means a comprehensive list. I would greatly appreciate if someone would think of something to add to this ramble. In conclusion, a person who wishes to be considered "strong" must train for all sorts of strength. Of course, if your strength training is taken up to "improve athletic performance", try to determine which of these expressions of strength suits your particular sport best, then work it into the ground.